Sociologists Sarah Babb, Lara Birk, and Luka Carfagna surveyed qualitative sociologists about their IRB experiences and heard many of the usual horror stories, from insistence on inappropriate consent forms to the dribbling out of concerns over several rounds of comments. Few of their respondents are happy with the present system, though getting the right people in key positions can help.
[Sarah Babb, Lara Birk, and Luka Carfagna, “Standard Bearers: Qualitative Sociologists’ Experiences with IRB Regulation,” American Sociologist, October 6, 2016, 1–17, doi:10.1007/s12108–016–9331-z. Note: I read a version of this article in manuscript and am so credited in the article.]
Standardization and arbitrariness can coexist
The authors begin with a puzzle:
Researchers … have raised concerns about two apparently contradictory problems. On the one hand many studies have observed that different local IRBs arrive at inconsistent decisions regarding the same research proposal, causing significant difficulties for biomedical researchers working across multiple institutions… . On the other hand, researchers in the social sciences and humanities, especially qualitative interview researchers, are more likely to charge IRBs with extending homogeneous, biomedical standards to different kinds of research . . . Why does standardization appear to be such a dominant theme in qualitative researchers’ experiences with their IRBs?
As the following page makes clear, this is not so difficult a conundrum. What researchers colloquially call the “IRB” is more properly understood as a human research protection program (HRPP) with two parts. First, the institutional review board itself, composed (in a university setting) mostly of faculty, and second, the IRB administrative staff that conducts the initial screening and sets up forms and procedures.